This post will look at the salutations and valedictions in the New Testament epistles. It’s easy to skip over them when reading the letters, and my thought was that a more careful reading — and some comparison — might provide some insights.
A couple of caveats: I’ll acknowledge at the outset that it is not always clear where the salutation stops and the body of the letter begins, nor especially where the body of the letter ends and the valediction starts. I’m not an ancient historian, but I have no doubt that some of what we find here may simply reflect letter-writing conventions of the time; on the other hand, I also suspect some of what we find reflects conventions that were established in earlier Christian letters and then followed in later ones.
Note that the typical format is to announce first the author of the letter; that’s the opposite of the typical letter today, when it’s not until the very end that the signatory is formally declared. Of course, nowadays we usually know from the envelope who wrote the letter and, if we don’t, it’s easy enough to flip to the end to see the signature before beginning to read the letter; perhaps in ancient times all this was more difficult than it is today (for example, if there were no envelopes, and if the epistles were written on scrolls). You certainly want to know who the author is as you read the letter.
And I’ll note also that it is interesting that the sequence in the letters is almost always the same. That is, there a salutation, and then the body of the letter, and then a valediction; what’s more, the salutation in particular almost always identifies the author, then identifies the recipient, and then has a short message from the author to the recipient before the body of the letter commences.
Accordingly, I found it was helpful for me to highlight in different colors the different components just described as I was studying and comparing the various salutations and valedictions — and I thought that, having done that, it might be helpful to pass along this highlighting to you, dear reader, which I’ve done below.
Here’s the key to the highlighting I just described:
- orange = author identifying himself;
- green = Romans-only passage;
- blue = addressee;
- purple = message; and
- red = valediction.
Romans: The salutation is, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The valediction is, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.”
I Corinthians: The salutation is, “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The valediction is, “The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. The greeting is in my own hand—Paul. If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.”
II Corinthians: The salutation is, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The valediction is, “Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” [Note the Trinitarian reference in that last sentence.]
Galatians: The salutation is, “Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.” The valediction is, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen.”
Ephesians: The salutation is, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are at Ephesus, and who are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The valediction is, “Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with a love incorruptible.”
Philippians: The salutation is, “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including our overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The valediction is, “Now to our God and Father be the glory forever and ever. Amen. Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Colossians: The salutation is, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” The valediction is, “Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house. And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea. Say to Archippus, ‘Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.’ I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my imprisonment. Grace be with you.”
I Thessalonians: The salutation is, “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.” The valediction is, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass. Brethren pray for us. Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss. I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
II Thessalonians: The salutation is, “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The valediction is, “Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all! I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”
I Timothy: The salutation is, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope; to Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” The valediction is, “Grace be with you.”
II Timothy: The salutation is, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my beloved son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” The valediction is, “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.”
Titus: The salutation is, “Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior; to Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.” The valediction is, “All who are with me greet you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.”
Philemon: The salutation is, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The valediction is, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Hebrews: No salutation. The valediction is, “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things. And I urge you all the more to do this, so that I may be restored to you the sooner. Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I will see you. Greet all of your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you. Grace be with you all.”
James: The salutation is, “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad, greetings.” No valediction.
I Peter: The salutation is, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure.” [Note the Trinitarian reference.] The valediction is, “Through Silvanus, our faithful brother (for so I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it! She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark. Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace be to you all who are in Christ.”
II Peter: The salutation is, “Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord ….” The valediction is, “[G]row in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”
I John: No salutation or valediction.
II John: The salutation is, “The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; and not only I, but also all who know the truth, for the sake of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.” The valediction is, “Having many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that your joy made be made full. The children of your chosen sister greet you.”
III John: The salutation is, “The elder to the beloved Gaius, who I love in truth. Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” The valediction is, “I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write them to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.”
Jude: The salutation is, “Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to whose who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy and peace and love be multiplied to you.” The valediction is, “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”
Here are some observations about the salutations:
- Only Hebrews and I John lack a salutation (and I John doesn’t have a valediction either).
- All Paul’s letters have a salutation and a valediction.
- Only John and the author of Hebrews never describe themselves as a “bond servant.” Hebrews and I John, as noted, have no salutation; and John II and John III describe the author only as, “The elder.”
- Only in I and II Thessalonians does Paul mention just his name without further describing himself.
- The salutations in I and II Thessalonians are identical except that Paul adds to the end of the latter “from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
- The salutations in I and II Timothy are very close, too.
- In five of his letters, Paul acknowledges joint authorship (or, at least, that others join him in sending the letter); no other author does this.
- The messages in Paul’s salutations are quite uniform and short. Every one of them includes “grace” and “peace”; I and II Timothy add “mercy”; and, except for an additional description of Christ’s salvific role for us in Galatians (and the unique passage in Romans that I discuss below), that’s all Paul includes in his salutations’ messages.
- The messages in I and II Peter and II John likewise include “grace” and “peace”; Jude provides “mercy and peace and love.”
- For salutation messages, then, that leaves III John, which asks that the letter’s recipients “prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers”; and James, which — reminding me of the infamous letter from the draft board — says simply, “Greetings.”
- Finally, take a look at the passage from the salutation in Romans that I’ve highlighted in green above. There’s no equivalent in the other letters; it’s as if Paul can’t even wait until he’s finished the salutation to start the theology-heavy body of the letter — and the letter is, fittingly, Romans, which is the tour de force letter placed first in the New Testament.
And here are some observations about the valedictions:
- Only James and I John have no valediction (I John doesn’t have a salutation either).
- All Paul’s letters (and Hebrews) include “Grace be with you” in some form in his valedictions; and, again, all Paul’s letters have both a salutation and a valediction.
- The words “greet” or “greeting” or “greetings” appear commonly in the valedictions; it is always a variant of the Greek aspazomai or aspasmos. But in the salutation in James, the word “Greetings” is the Greek Chairein (same as in the Jerusalem Council letter reproduced at Acts 15:23), meaning “Health!” Although the latter’s root has to do with joy, I don’t know that there is any theological significance to it. (See Goodrick-Kohlenberger number 832/833 versus 5897.)
- There’s more variety in the valedictions than in the salutations.
- I noted at the outset of this post that it is not always easy to draw the line between when the body of the letter ends and the valediction starts, and this is especially so with Paul’s letters, where he passes along individual greetings and sometimes mixes in instructions as he is also saying good-bye. To elaborate: In Romans, all of chapter 16 and even the last part of chapter 15 (which ends with, “Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.”) is winding things down with individual greetings and the like; Colossians 4:7-14 is semi-closing, with individual greetings and instructions; in I Thessalonians 5:27, note Paul’s instruction in the letter’s penultimate verse to read the letter out loud to “all the brethren”; and there are semi-closing instructions and greetings to individuals that I’ve omitted from the valedictions above in II Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
Are there any broader insights to be gleaned from all this? Well, describing oneself as a “bond-servant,” the ubiquitousness of Jesus and God the Father, and the consistent expressions of grace and peace: These are letters to and from serious Christians, are they not?
And consider: When you think about it, the New Testament letters are, of all the Bible genres, the hardest to accept as simply made up. Why would you choose to forge letters like this? As you think about that, keep in mind that nobody back then knew that one day there would be something called a Bible that would include some early Christian letters.
And there is in the letters the power of “implicity” — that is, evidence that provides support for a proposition not by directly addressing it, but by being premised on it. For example, in a dispute about whether a particular spice was commonly sold in Jerusalem in A.D. 50, Josephus’s assertion that it was indeed sold then might be less persuasive than a random shopping list from that time and place that included the spice on it.
Would we expect letters to have been exchanged among early Christians and, if so, what would we expect them to contain? I’d suggest that we would, and we would expect them to contain information like what we find: This is what we believe, this is how we behave, this is why we believe what we do, this is how you should choose your church leaders, this is how you should monitor each others’ behavior, these are my credentials, and so forth. And, of course, we’d expect them to read like letters, including openings and closings.
What we find in the salutations and valedictions of these letters — in equal measures quotidian and devout — is strong supporting evidence of the genuineness of the letters and the messages therein.
[More along these lines here, another blogpost on this website.]
Postscript: After posting this, I read Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation, which notes that that book has characteristics of three genres — revelation, prophecy, and letter (see especially chapter one) — and discusses in particular, for example, its trinitarian salutation (23-25).
Second postscript: The pastor at our church recently made the point that the closing in Paul’s letter to Titus underscores that the Christian enterprise is a communal one. That’s true, and that point applies really to all valedictions and all salutations for all the letters.